Five things we learned from our coverage of the Edmonton election

This is the first time The Local Good has gotten involved in a municipal election.

Why did we do it? Well, we see engagement with local politics as an extension of living locally. Our goals were to give voters the opportunity to ask candidates questions on key local issues, help voters make informed decisions by publishing the responses, and stimulate discussion using our blog and social media channels. We hoped that as a result, people in our relatively-young Gen-X-and-Gen-Y demographic would become more engaged in municipal politics, and more likely to vote.  

For what it’s worth, we had 37 questions submitted by our friends, followers, and members via social media, many of which repeated the same concerns and had a markedly progressive/liberal point-of-view. We needed to group, prioritize, and (in some cases) rephrase them to get a concise set of questions that were of broad interest and that we felt even candidates with platforms and values different from our own leanings would be happy to answer. Our goal was to keep our process as nonpartisan and transparent as possible.

Here’s what we learned along the way:

1. Candidates are incredibly pressed for time, so make your questionnaire short and snappy. Ours was an ambitious seven questions, plus contact information; next municipal election, we will aim for three questions.

2. Send your questions out early. We started sending questionnaires to candidates in the first week of August, more than a month before nomination day, as they announced their campaigns – and we attribute our relatively high response rate to that early start. In the end, we got responses from 50 council candidates (out of 73) and 3 mayoral candidates (out of 6).

3. Our respondents came from across the political spectrum, but we noticed that some of the candidates who were appealing to a very strongly conservative base did not reply to our questionnaire. That may be for two reasons: that, from their perspective, our audience didn’t overlap with their target voters, so taking the time to answer didn’t make strategic sense; or, from their perspective, our language in our questions was too biased toward the progressive/liberal end of the political spectrum, despite our efforts to use politically neutral language. Either a broader readership or very careful question phrasing might help raise the response rate in future. (Not all our nonrespondents are conservative – many were running very small campaigns and simply couldn’t spare the time.)

4. One problem with asking broad questions is that you often get somewhat generic, politically safe answers with a lot of platitudes and not a lot of specifics. Everyone wants Edmonton to be a “world-class city” that uses “collaboration” to find “creative solutions” to its problems. (Really. I tried using Wordle to identify trends in the candidates’ responses, and found that most of the word clouds it generated looked the same.) This makes it hard for voters to distinguish between candidates’ platforms  – so we learned that next time, we should aim for questions that will elicit more policy specifics and fewer buzzwords.

5. The funny stuff, like extreme responses from fringe candidates and guest posts by local comedians, is what tends to go viral. Initially we were dismayed by that, but we soon realized that, with careful promotion, you can use funny posts to build awareness of the more serious purpose of your questionnaire, and people will stick around to do their research after enjoying the hilarity.

What else could we do better next time? Please let us know in the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter!